The horror of an army turning on its own people
In 1972, British soldiers killed 14 Irish protestors in the city of Derry. Yesterday an exhaustive inquiry declared the protestors totally innocent.
One story dominated everything yesterday: the publication of the £200 million, 5,000 page “Bloody Sunday” report by a tribunal set up to examine the killing of 14 unarmed Irish civilians by the British Parachute Regiment in the Northern Irish city of Derry on Sunday January 30th 1972. The Saville Report said the killings were totally unjustified. David Cameron apologised on behalf of the nation.
An argument has raged for 38 years over whether the army was justified because Irish protestors that day had opened fire first, or had thrown bombs. The report found that none of the 14 dead were carrying a gun, no warnings were given, no soldiers were under threat and the victims were totally innocent.
The context of these killings was not just a religious civil war in Northern Ireland which killed 3,526 people. It was the biggest British military killing of civilians on UK soil since the “Peterloo Massacre” on August 16th 1819, when 600 armed cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000 demonstrators in a park in Manchester, killing 15 and wounding around 500.
Bloody Sunday sparked a mass of new recruits to join the Provisional IRA. Peterloo sparked a massive protest movement that some say created the trades unions and led to ordinary people getting the right to vote.
So the blanket coverage in the serious papers yesterday was primarily a record of an important moment in history. It reflected the belief that an army turning on its own people without justification is a cause for national horror and shame. The Times carried five full pages, The Daily Telegraph four, The Independent carried ten pages and The Guardian six.
But it was also the occasion for a simmering argument to emerge. The issue: after all this time, should soldiers be charged? The clear theme in most of the papers was the wish to draw a line under the affair. “Nothing will be achieved... by dragging soldiers into court 38 years on” said The Sun. Others such as The Guardian passionately disagreed. “If it kills its citizens, the state and its servants must answer for their actions. Saville’s findings are part of that process. But the cases must also be properly examined by the prosecution authorities.”
- We still prosecute war criminals from the Second World War. Is it ever possible to say that justice has a time limit and we should “draw a line” under an event?
- Would you charge the soldiers who fired the guns or their commanding officers who approved the orders?
- Research the events of “Bloody Sunday” in more detail and write your own newspaper article explaining why it happened.
- Find out about the Plantation of Ulster in 1609 and The Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and explain how these events contributed to later problems in Ireland.
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